Trafalgar Studios, London – until 25 May 2019
Is it part of the irony within Joshua Harmon’s Admissions that a play about white privilege and the hypocrisy of white liberals has only white characters?
Set in New England, the play centres on a middle-class family. Mother Sherri (Alex Kingston) is head of admissions at a posh private school and doggedly determined to increase diversity among staff and pupils while her husband Bill (Andrew Woodall) is the equally liberal head of the school.
Their son Charlie (Ben Edelman) and his best friend Perry, whose mother (Sarah Hadland) is white and father mixed race, have both applied to Yale but when Charlie doesn’t get accepted, the family’s liberal halo dramatically slips.
Charlie believes his friend’s admission to Yale is down to diversity targets rather than merit.
He expresses his opinion at length in a nasty and hysterical rant, levelling similar criticism at equality targets just for good measure. His parents listen passively, passing comment only when he has finally run out of steam.
His father is the only parent to admonish, calling him a spoiled brat while Sherri excuses him, believing he is merely ‘upset’ having worked so hard.
Later, in a U-turn delivered with handbrake speed, Charlie recants his racist and sexist views when he overhears Perry’s mother telling Sherri how white privilege has stymied her husband’s career.
It is the closest we get to having the perspective of someone who isn’t white.
Charlie’s parents’ hypocrisy is fully exposed when he announces that he wants to go to community college and donate his college fees to his private school to pay for a scholarship for a BAME student.
Cue parental hysterics about how Charlie’s life is essentially over if he doesn’t go to a good university coupled with threats not to support him.
Joshua Harmon exposes some ugly truths, diversity is supported until unspoken white privilege is challenged but by presenting the argument in this way he is in danger of perpetuating that hypocrisy.
Safe viewing environment
He is giving white, middle class, liberals a safe, cosy, laugh-a-long environment and there is little that is actually challenging about that.
I’ve seen plays explore racism in the middle classes with far more bite – Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park, for example.
Only a couple of weeks ago I saw Letters To My White Best Friend (And Other Things Left Unsaid) at The Bunker which was a powerful piece about white privilege told from the perspective of black and brown writers and creatives.
Should be uncomfortable viewing
The stories of prejudice ranged from the subtle to blatant and while often told with humour it was uncomfortable viewing.
Challenging topics should be uncomfortable.
What is even more troublesome about Admissions is that theatre, supposedly the stomping ground for liberals is only very slowly embracing diversity and equality.
I’m not going to fault the acting in Admissions it’s just the play and what it represents that sticks in my throat. It’s getting ⭐️⭐️ from me but the Sunday Times gave it 5 stars and the Guardian 4 stars, so other opinions are available.
It is an hour and 40 minutes without an interval and is at the Trafalgar Studios until May 25.
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If you want properly challenging theatre then go and see Downstate at the National Theatre, my review here.
Grab a ticket if you can for Betrayal starring Zawe Ashton, Tom Hiddleston and Charlie Cox, it’s really rather good.
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